BANGKOK: With free meals, music concerts and dancing soldiers, Thailand's junta is waging a propaganda offensive to encourage "national happiness" following a military coup that has severely restricted civil liberties.
Since seizing power on May 22 from an elected government, the army has banned public protests, censored the media and summoned hundreds of politicians, activists and academics for questioning.
The army, which has ruled out elections for at least a year, says its intervention was needed to end months of bloody political unrest.
And now the coup-makers are trying to portray the softer side of military rule, with propaganda programmes on the television and festivities in the streets.
"Thai people, like me, have probably not been happy for nine years, but since May 22 there is happiness," army commander-in-chief Prayut Chan-O-Cha said in a recent televised address to the nation.
While the coup has its supporters, particularly among the Bangkok-based elite who loathed the previous government, the happiness campaign masks what activists say is a severe deterioration in human rights.
"I think it is mere propaganda," said Paul Chambers, director of research at the Institute of Southeast Asian Affairs in Chiang Mai.
"It is blunt and too obvious."
But for the hundreds of Thais who attended an army-hosted festival this week in Bangkok, the spin doctors' medicine appears to be working.
"People coming here today are happy and today society started to smile," said Chutamat Kritcharoen, 45, while a group of young soldiers showed off their muscles on stage to a delirious crowd.
"Happiness is coming back to the people."
Land of crisis
Arunee Omsin, 59, said she was most happy about being able to venture out onto the streets without fear of a repeat of the gunfire and grenade attacks that shook Bangkok for months before the coup.
"We want the Thai style of atmosphere back. In the past people called us the Land of Smiles, but now we have become the Land of Crisis," she said while queuing up for a free meal of rice and omelette.
Nearby, children stroked a horse from a military cavalry regiment, while several Thais enjoyed free medical check-ups and a young woman posed for a photo with a soldier in camouflage.
"This event is seen as a fresh start for Thai society so people can face each other and talk, using music as a medium, or with other activities," said Colonel Sombat Thanyawan, a cavalry regiment commander.
With a carnival atmosphere and free food, the festivities are reminiscent of the anti-government protests that precipitated the coup.
The demonstrators, drawn largely from Bangkok and the south, succeeded in their aim of toppling the government of ex-premier Yingluck Shinawatra, who is the younger sister of divisive former leader Thaksin Shinawatra.
Thaksin, a billionaire tycoon-turned-populist politician who lives in self-exile to avoid prison for corruption, is popular in the northern half of the country but is hated by many in Bangkok and the south.
While the army has presented itself as a neutral mediator in the long-running crisis, its takeover of power and plans to draw up a new constitution are exactly what the opposition protesters wanted.
With Thai society deeply divided since a 2006 coup that ousted Thaksin, the prospects for a victory for the generals in the propaganda war appear uncertain.
Dozens of people were killed in a military crackdown on pro-Thaksin rallies in 2010.
"In view of the political crisis over the past decade, Thais have been collectively unhappy and the military correctly sees this," said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, political analyst at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University.
"But national unhappiness cannot be remedied merely through promotional campaigns," he added. "It has to be tackled at its roots, at the sources of social divide and political conflict."
As part of its campaign the junta also plans to set up "reconciliation" centres around the country, although details are still sketchy.
The organised activities are accompanied by tight control of national media, who are obliged to regularly interrupt their normal broadcasting to transmit the junta's messages.
Behind the happy images, anyone caught protesting against the coup in public risks trial in a military court and possible imprisonment.
"This is a carrot and stick military media campaign," said Chambers.
While Bangkok residents may welcome the festivities, "rural people may not buy it hook, line and sinker," he added. - AFP